Over the past decade, a renewed interest in oysters and aquaculture has bolstered a revival in the local industry. Rhode Island’s pristine coastal waters and salt estuaries serve as ideal growing locations for these popular bivalves and over 50 farms across the state are now in the market of farming and distributing. Aquaculture is overwhelmingly important to Rhode Island as it provides a sustainable source of protein, uses minimal resources and has a beneficial ecological footprint. With the growth and development of oyster farming, it can open the opportunity to create more jobs and strengthen the stature of locally grown food in the Rhode Island economy.
As a bartender at Midtown Oyster Bar, it’s pretty important to understand oysters. Chef Brian Ashness, who runs the raw bar kitchen at the restaurant, estimates that Midtown sold roughly 180,000 oysters last year alone. A wise man once told me that there’s three keys to being in sales; knowledge of product, passion for that product and personality. Now I’m not shy by any means and I’d like to think that my bar guests find me tolerable so we can check personality off the list. I most certainly have an affinity for oysters and always want to know more about what I’m selling on a daily basis. In order to learn more about local aquaculture, Luke Gambale (a fellow bartender at Midtown) and I spent our day off this week all the way across the bridge in Charlestown, Rhode Island hanging out with the guys at the Walrus&Carpenter Oyster farm.
Owned by a gentleman named Jules Opton-Himmel, the Walrus&Carpenter farm is located on 6 acres of leased land in the pristine waters of Ninigret Pond. The location is exemplary for oyster farming as salt water flowing in from the Charlestown Breachway marries with a fresh water upwelling from natural springs creating a balance of flavors for the bivalves to filter. What “terroir” is for wine, “merroir” is for oysters.
One of seven farms located in the same salt flat, Walrus&Carpenter Oysters have solidified a distinctive brand and quality reputation in the industry and have shown no signs of slowing down. Aptly named after the poem in Lewis Carroll’s ‘Through the Looking Glass,’ Jules prides himself on his farm-to-table approach, as oysters are hand sorted and selected in the morning and delivered to Chefs across the state later that afternoon. The team at Walrus&Carpenter delivers all of their oysters personally and distribute almost exclusively to in-state restaurants. If you’re looking for fresh and local, these oysters are your cup of tea. The farm’s adopted motto, “Briny, Butter, Better,” is a compliment of their product’s flavor profile and their commitment to quality. It is this approach that has garnered the respect, admiration and appreciation of restauranteurs and patrons alike.
While out on the water with the team, Luke and I were introduced to a quick glimpse of a day in the life of an oyster farmer. We had a full boat that day and were fortunate enough to spend some time with the entire team. Jules’ employees are young, passionate and down-to-earth guys who enjoy being out on the water and were more than welcoming to Luke & my greenhorn skill sets. Steve, Steve, Alfredo, Mitch, Isaac and Jules spent the morning showing us the ropes and even let us bag up the daily order that was to be delivered later that afternoon. It was pretty amazing to be bagging up the same oysters that I knew my buddies Donnie and Timmy would be shucking later on that night down at The Landing and the same oysters that I would be selling to my bar guests during shifts this week. Luke spent most of his time in the water, navigating the farm with ‘Farmer Steve’ and harvesting oysters to sort. ‘Sales Steve’ and I spent our time on the barge sorting the market oysters from runts (oysters that would need more time in the water to mature) and packaging the daily order, which was not small by any means for a Tuesday afternoon!
Although we were fortunate to venture down on a gorgeous 75 degree day, the guys at Walrus&Carpenter farm oysters all year long, including those brutal winter months that will be here before we know it. The colder weather is prime season for oysters here in Rhode Island as the bivalves fatten up for the season and the waters become colder and crisper.
Along with their responsibilities in Charlestown, the Walrus&Carpenter crew took the aquaculture industry in Rhode Island to new heights this past year by becoming the first to farm kelp in Narragansett Bay. Kelp, although intimidating to the unfamiliar at first, is a nutritious and sustainable food that is commonly compared to kale. Although this is a much smaller operation than the oysters, it’s a progressive move in an uncharted industry and something that is still waiting to be explored by the local culinary industry. Jules has also started making way for a new brand of oysters after securing a lease off of Jamestown. These new oysters should be ready for restaurants by 2017 and we couldn’t be more excited!
With some of the best oysters in the world located here in our own home state, it’s common for Rhode Islanders to take advantage of the opportunity we have to enjoy quality, local, farm fresh products. Most people are concerned with price instead of prime. With so many restaurants offering $1 oysters, it’s easy to see where some consumers get lost in the concept of ‘value.’ Consider this, ordering a standard domestic at a bar such as a Coors Light is going to cost you less than ordering a craft beer such as a Flying Jenny by Grey Sail Brewing Company but the quality is also going to differ. There’s nothing wrong with wholesale oysters and I enjoy buck-a-shuck promotions quite often, however it’s important to understand and support local farms and farmers, especially when they’re right here in your own backyard.
A big thank you goes out to the team at Walrus&Carpenter for hosting us this week and teaching us more about the wild world of oysters. If you haven’t enjoyed their product yet, stop by Midtown Oyster Bar any day this week and ask for a dozen or two, I promise you won’t regret it!
Tyler’s Two Cents: Thoughts from Behind the Bar is a weekly lifestyle column, written by Tyler Bernadyn, that will appear every week on What’sUpNewp this summer.
Tyler Bernadyn is a local hospitality professional, bartending at Midtown Oyster Bar Wednesday through Sunday nights on the Burgee Bar and at Caleb&Broad on Monday nights for their award winning $10 entree dinner special.
Tyler is a graduate of Providence College and a true Rhode Islander, born and bred.
Email him at TylerBernadyn@gmail.com and follow him on Instagram at @tylerbernadyn.